How to effectively talk to your doctor about pain

Getting your provider to understand how you really feel can make all the difference in whether you get the right treatment — or get blown off as exaggerating your pain. Here’s how to talk to your doctor about pain and be taken seriously.

Americans are no stranger to pain. About 20% of all adults suffer from chronic pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And more than 7% report having pain so intense that it has limited their life or work activities over the past 3 months.

“Pain is complicated, since we all feel it differently. Some of us have a higher tolerance for pain, while others feel it more intensely,” says Caitlin Donovan. Donovan is a senior director of the National Patient Advocate Foundation.

How we view pain in others — in people of different genders or races, for example — can also vary wildly. For example, women are much less likely to be taken seriously than men when they report chronic pain. In one study, researchers asked participants to observe men and women who expressed the same amount of pain. The results: Participants viewed the women’s pain as less intense than the men’s. They also believed that the women were more likely to benefit from talk therapy than pain medication.

Why the gap? Part of the problem, Donovan notes, is that pain is subjective. There’s no lab or imaging test that can effectively rate your pain. This can make it hard for your healthcare provider to know what you’re going through. Instead, your provider will rely on your own words to help them. Which is why how you talk to your doctor about pain is so important.

Here are some smart ways to do just that.

Get detailed and descriptive.

It’s best to be as specific as possible when it comes to talking about your pain, says Donovan. Some good words to use include:

  • Aching.
  • Cramping.
  • Gnawing.
  • Burning.
  • Sharp.
  • Shooting.
  • Stabbing.
  • Tender.
  • Throbbing.

It also helps to describe the following to your physician:

  • How long you’ve had the pain.
  • Where you feel the pain.
  • If your pain is in one spot or spread out.
  • Whether the pain is constant or comes and goes.
  • What helps the pain and what makes it worse.

The clearer you paint the picture, the better your provider will be able to see it.

Focus on function.

Tell your provider how your pain impacts your everyday life. Explain how it affects what you can and can’t do at work and at home. And share which activities your pain stops you from doing. 

It’s also important to set expectations for your care. “Let your doctor know that you assume that your treatment and overall approach to healthcare will be with the goal of bringing your health back to baseline,” says Annette Ticoras, M.D. Dr. Ticoras is an internal medicine physician and owner of Guided Patient Services in Columbus, Ohio.

“Give them a snapshot of who you are. For example, you are a busy working mom who can’t let back pain sideline her from going to her job and taking her kids to activities. This way, they are able to get a sense of who you really are, other than just a patient in their exam room.”

Share your history of pain and treatment.

For this, it helps to keep a pain journal. Whenever you have pain, try to write down as many details as possible, including:

  • The day and time it happened.
  • How severe it was.
  • The type of pain. (For help, use the word list above).
  • Where it hurt.
  • How long it lasted.
  • What might have caused it.
  • Any other symptoms you had at the same time.
  • Any treatment changes you recently made.
  • How the pain affected your mood.

These details help show your provider how much your pain limits your life and affects your ability to sleep, work, exercise, and spend time with friends and family. “It can really make a difference in how a doctor perceives your pain if they hear from you that it wakes you up several times during the night, for example,” says Donovan.

Also, let your provider know what treatments you’ve tried and whether or not they worked. Include any that they’ve suggested before too. “Recap past medical appointments. Remind them that you did several months of physical therapy for back pain, which didn’t help,” says Dr. Ticoras.

Bring a friend or loved one with you.

You may find it helpful to have a second set of eyes and ears with you. “Sometimes, just the presence of someone else is enough to make a doctor sit up and take your concerns seriously,” says Dr. Ticoras. Plus, if you’re feeling on edge or upset during your visit, it will be harder for you to remember what your provider said. A buddy can step in to take notes and ask questions for you if you feel overwhelmed.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Perhaps you don’t understand how a certain treatment works. Or why your provider isn’t ordering more tests. If you don’t ask questions, your provider likely won’t answer them. And that may leave you feeling confused or ignored — but not any better. Dr. Ticoras shares this example:

“It may seem to you that your physician isn’t taking your pain seriously because she doesn’t send you for an MRI right away for back pain. But it may be because insurance doesn’t usually cover an MRI for this purpose until you’ve had the pain for a certain amount of time or have tried other treatments first, like physical therapy. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open.”

Get a second opinion, if necessary. 

It’s reasonable to give your provider some time to problem solve. That may mean a few days or weeks, or even a few months, depending on the condition. But if they don’t seem to listen when you say a treatment isn’t helping, it’s time to get a second opinion.

“It’s a good idea to get a fresh pair of eyes on the situation, as another doctor may see it from a different angle,” says Dr. Ticoras. One study found that getting a second opinion cuts the chance of misdiagnosis in half. A third opinion drove it down even further, to 16%. And, of course, getting the right diagnosis is more likely to lead you to the right solution.

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